The Corner


Ideas Do Matter

In response to Did Obama’s Staff Fail Him in Dealing With Wright?

I appreciate Jonah firing one over our bow on the debate about loving America even if the “American idea” changed. And I want to agree with him that the ideas matter.   

I must confess, when Rich asked us whether “if America had different ideals, would you still love her?” I wasn’t thinking, “If American society and government dedicated itself to Maoism, would you love Maoism just because it was American?”  

Rather, I was thinking of my faith that America’s people would resist such an alteration. And that if our Constitutional settlement came under revision, it is highly unlikely that its ideals of liberty would not inform that revision. If the American idea was exchanged for Maoism, I can imagine fleeing this country. But I don’t think I would love America less even then. My love for it would just take the form of working to reverse the destructive new course, or preserving the memory of what was good in it. 

Jonah is correct that I almost dared to say that I “might like it better if we had different ideals.” That’s worth explaining. 

Charlie very much identifies the American settlement, and America’s greatness with the political tradition of classical liberalism. I like to say that any allegiance I have toward classical liberalism is practical. I think classically liberal political arrangements are well-suited to us. As a people, they help us to live together and they rhyme with our inherited experience. I do not believe they are for everyone. And I do not believe in some of the broader claims liberals have made about human nature. I do not believe “Man is born born free, everywhere in chains.”

As our conversation proceeded I had ventured that perhaps there was something in the American ideal that went beyond the classical liberalism that Charlie likes and included something Whiggish. Instead of merely ordered liberty there is something in the American ideal that is restless for the progressive emancipation of people from all external restraint. I see this line of thinking throughout America’s history. I see it in Thomas Paine. I see it throughout the 19th century, in men like Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, or in the the Liberal Leagues that endorsed Blaine amendments. I see it in the progressive movement today.

Jonah may disagree that these things are related to each other, or that they form a part of the American ideal, and I’d be happy for someone to prove it to me. But I suspect this Whiggishness is one part of the American ideal. I think it was  bequeathed to us by the way Protestantism has moldered in America. And I find it not just wrong on an abstract level, in the way it reasons about history, but threatening to the liberty of my family and the Roman Catholic Church to which I belong. I hear its voice in Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, who wrote a concurrence alleging that Catholic education was “propaganda” and that its schools failed to teach “Americanism.” I hear it when Hillary Clinton tells us that “religious beliefs will have to change.” 

Is it so shocking that a Roman Catholic, steeped in the traditions of his Church, finds a blemish in the ideals of Protestants and Deists? One Founder I really admire, John Adams, looked at the kind of religious service I attend weekly and thought it beautiful and repulsive all at once. I have no doubt he believed its proliferation in America would mark a partial reversal of his work. Like Hillary Clinton he might look at me, and say, “Thankfully they are not America.” But I am grateful that this Whiggish tradition is not all there is in America. And that ordered liberty has mostly meant the liberty for me and mine to flourish here.  

The ideas that exist in my home matter to me a great deal. They matter because it is my home.